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Teaching the Salem Witch Trials
Benjamin C. Ray
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‘Use every man after his desert, and who shall scape whipping?’ (Act II, Scene 2).
- 246 -
truth or whether he is being more or less unfair to himself. Nor is it difficult to see that there is no correspondence,
so far as we can judge, between the degree of self-abasement and its real justification. A good, capable,
conscientious woman will speak no better of herself after she develops melancholia than one who is in fact
worthless; indeed, the former is perhaps more likely to fall ill of the disease than the latter, of whom we too should
have nothing good to say. Finally, it must strike us that after all the melancholic does not behave in quite the same
way as a person who is crushed by remorse and self-reproach in a normal fashion. Feelings of shame in front of
other people, which would more than anything characterize this latter condition, are lacking in the melancholic, or at
least they are not prominent in him. One might emphasize the presence in him of an almost opposite trait of insistent
communicativeness which finds satisfaction in self-exposure.
The essential thing, therefore, is not whether the melancholic's distressing self-denigration is correct, in the
sense that his self-criticism agrees with the opinion of other people. The point must rather be that he is giving a
correct description of his psychological situation. He has lost his self-respect and he must have good reason for this.
It is true that we are then faced with a contradiction that presents a problem which is hard to solve. The analogy with
mourning led us to conclude that he had suffered a loss in regard to an object; what he tells us points to a loss in
regard to his ego.
Before going into this contradiction, let us dwell for a moment on the view which the melancholic's disorder
affords of the constitution of the human ego. We see how in him one part of the ego sets itself over against the other,
judges it critically, and, as it were, takes it as its object. Our suspicion that the critical agency which is here split off
from the ego might also show its independence in other circumstances will be confirmed by every further
observation. We shall really find grounds for distinguishing this agency from the rest of the ego. What we are here
becoming acquainted with is the agency commonly called ‘conscience’; we shall count it, along with the censorship
of consciousness and reality-testing, among the major institutions of the ego,
and we shall come upon evidence to
show that it can become diseased on its own account. In the clinical picture of
[See above, p.
- 247 -
melancholia, dissatisfaction with the ego on moral grounds is the most outstanding feature. The patient's self-
evaluation concerns itself much less frequently with bodily infirmity, ugliness or weakness, or with social
inferiority; of this category, it is only his fears and asseverations of becoming poor that occupy a prominent position.
There is one observation, not at all difficult to make, which leads to the explanation of the contradiction
mentioned above [at the end of the last paragraph but one]. If one listens patiently to a melancholic's many and
various self-accusations, one cannot in the end avoid the impression that often the most violent of them are hardly at
all applicable to the patient himself, but that with insignificant modifications they do fit someone else, someone
whom the patient loves or has loved or should love. Every time one examines the facts this conjecture is confirmed.
So we find the key to the clinical picture: we perceive that the self-reproaches are reproaches against a loved object
which have been shifted away from it on to the patient's own ego.
The woman who loudly pities her husband for being tied to such an incapable wife as herself is really accusing
of being incapable, in whatever sense she may mean this. There is no need to be greatly surprised that a
few genuine self-reproaches are scattered among those that have been transposed back. These are allowed to obtrude
themselves, since they help to mask the others and make recognition of the true state of affairs impossible.
Moreover, they derive from the
of the conflict of love that has led to the loss of love. The behaviour
of the patients, too, now becomes much more intelligible. Their complaints are really ‘plaints’ in the old sense of the
word. They are not ashamed and do not hide themselves, since everything derogatory that they say about themselves
is at bottom said about someone else. Moreover, they are far from evincing towards those around them the attitude
of humility and submissiveness that would alone befit such worthless people. On the contrary, they make the
greatest nuisance of themselves, and always seem as though they felt slighted and had been treated with great
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